Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

In Ancient Footsteps; Recently Freed from a Zimbabwean Jail for Alleged Visa Violations, Intrepid Journalist Toby Harnden Enjoys the Vibrant Humanity He Discovers Behind the Closed Doors of Another of the World's Pariah States, Syria

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

In Ancient Footsteps; Recently Freed from a Zimbabwean Jail for Alleged Visa Violations, Intrepid Journalist Toby Harnden Enjoys the Vibrant Humanity He Discovers Behind the Closed Doors of Another of the World's Pariah States, Syria

Article excerpt

Byline: TOBY HARNDEN

IN ALEPPO'S Old Town the stench of slaughtered sheep heads competes with the aromas of saffron and henna.

Youths cajole a heavily laden ass through twisting alleys.

Christian merchants shout out gold prices while the mournful voice of the muezzin calls Muslims to prayer.

Little has changed since the early Ottoman or even Mameluke period.

Men in keffiyehs and dishdashas clamour for freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Determined women negotiate crowds with jute bales on their heads. Only the breakneck scootering gives a hint that this is the 21st century. The few Western tourists are generally treated with warmth and curiosity.

Aleppo's souk is reputed to be the largest covered market in the world.

Its counterpart in Damascus has a corrugated roof riddled with bullet holes from celebratory gunfire by Turks in Lawrence of Arabia's time.

Shafts of sunlight shine through on the people below.

Travelling the length of Syria by vehicle is frustrating but rewarding.

The roads and cars are battered.

Highways into the desert can simply run out of Tarmac and the potholes are the size of hot tubs. Signs are hilariously inadequate. One showed that the road to Damascus was both straight ahead and right. It was actually left.

When things went wrong we relied on Syrian hospitality. Lost in Aleppo, a man clambered into the car to guide us to our hotel. When the engine cut out he cheerfully enlisted a group of enthusiastic locals to give us a jump start. On another occasion we got caught up in an Armenian funeral.

Shopkeepers and passers-by gesticulated and shouted, helping us to inch by. Syria has the personal touch everywhere.

In Aleppo, once the last stop on the Orient Express, we visited the Baron Hotel, where the wood panels, leather armchairs and tiled floors recall TE Lawrence's stay in Room 202 during the Great War. Beit Wakil, in Aleppo's Christian quarter, where rooms open on to a 450-year-old courtyard, is Syria's most romantic hotel.

The merchant city is dominated by a mediaeval moated citadel and mulberry bushes on which silkworms produce their cocoons. There are 400-year-old soap factories where the traditional recipe of caustic soda plus 14 barrels of water, 24 of olive oil and three of laurel is still observed.

You won't see McDonald's or Coca-Cola, but juice bars and omelette stalls abound. In Damascus, we sat by the fountain at the al-Khawali restaurant, a merchant's home built in 1368, and munched on kibbeh minced lamb and borek cheese pastries as locals chatted and smoked water pipes, or nargilehs.

THE ubiquitous Stalinesque portraits of Bashar Assad and his late father, Hafez, an air force officer who seized power in 1970 and died in 2000, are a reminder that Syria is a Ba'athist dictatorship and one of the world's most repressive regimes. Only in Hama, renowned for its creaking wooden water wheels or norias, did we get a glimpse of what this might mean.

At the Azem Palace, Ahmed, our elderly guide, froze when I asked what had happened to a rebuilt cupola. "I don't know," he faltered.

"It's new, yes. It must have been damaged. You cannot take photographs."

The senior official corrected him: "That's original - no restoration."

Ahmed was too afraid to say that the palace had been damaged and the cupola destroyed in 1982. At least 20,000 people were killed in Hama when a rebellion against the Assads' Alawite regime by the Muslim Brotherhood was brutally suppressed. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.